The Happiness Track: Religious Experiences Really Do Unite Us

The Happiness Track: Religious Experiences Really Do Unite Us

Emma Seppälä PhD is author of The Happiness Track, founder of, and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

One memory keeps coming back to me from a retreat for meditation researchers. We had spent the week presenting our latest data and discussing how to move the field forward. Then, at the very end of the week, a Tibetan monk who had attended as a guest was invited onstage to share his reflections. He dropped his chin to his chest, put his head in his hands, and said: “I don’t know what you all are up to!”

He was pointing to the fact, I believe, that our heady and intellectual approach was not going to really get us to the ultimate truth of things. I think he was right about that. And yet, research studies can also be tremendously helpful—especially for the cynical. They can open the minds of people who believe only in hard data.

For example, we live in a time that seems increasingly close-minded and divisive—a world coming apart. However, if you look at religion (one of the most outwardly divisive forces of all) from inside the brain, the results can help you see the world from a very different perspective. A recent brain-imaging study at Yale University called “Neural Correlates of Spiritual Experiences” shows that the brain reacts in very similar ways to our diverse spiritual experiences—regardless of tradition, race, creed, or gender.

In the study, directed by Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, participants were asked to recall spiritual experiences using the following instructions:

We would like you to describe a situation in which you felt a strong connection with a higher power or a spiritual presence. Spiritual states are those that through a felt-sense connect you to something bigger than oneself, a oneness, or strong force which may be experienced as an energy, force, higher power, G-d, deity or transcendent figure or consciousness. Such states may be experienced in places of worship, at home, in your daily life, or outdoors in nature. Choose a personal lived situation that you directly experienced, whether others were present or not. Also, include in your description the bodily sensations you have experienced in these situations.

Sure enough, the participants came up with a variety of scripts that were unique, highly personal, and often deeply meaningful and touching—and yet they tended to involve feelings of oneness, infinity, and connection to other—seen or unseen. Here is an example:

It’s a slightly rainy weekend in early April in Virginia. You are sitting facing Gia and Nonno’s headstones in the cemetery. You take a deep breath in. This is the first time you’ve been here since Nonno’s funeral. You think about the funeral and how there’s so much that you didn’t know about Nonno. There is a heavy feeling in your stomach. You think how he was closer with Jenny, Caroline, and Peter. There’s a lump in your throat. You gaze at the yellow candle lit in front of the headstone. Tears well up in your eyes. You want him to know how much you loved him. “I did love you, I’m so sorry.” You repeat out loud. Tears are streaming down your cheeks. “I did love you.” Suddenly, you feel a hand from behind—a steady holding embrace, on your neck and shoulders. Your heartbeat quickens. The touch is secure and knowing. A wave of warm happiness comes over you. Instantly the sadness lifts, replaced with an assured calmness. All the tension melts from your body. You know it’s Gia and Nonno. There is a sense of warm excitement. You are strong inside. Your heart is filled with brightness and illumination. He knows. You feel like laughing. There is only happiness now.

The participants then listened to a narration of their own spiritual experience that they had shared with the research group. The goal was to bring them back into the experience while the neuroscientists scanned their brains. The research team then compared that brain activation to previously shared stressful and neutral experiences.

Despite the broad differences and variations among the spiritual scenarios, the researchers observed that similar parts of the brain were activated for each participant. In particular, there was less activity in the inferior parietal lobe, which is usually active during representations of oneself in space and time. Spiritual experiences often involve losing touch with space and time and having an expanded “sense of self,” the researchers explain. Decreased activity in the parietal lobe may suggest that, during their spiritual experience, the participants momentarily lost some of their sense of self as they connected with something greater. “Taken together,” the researchers conclude, “the present finding suggests that spiritual experiences may involve a perceived encounter with a spacious ‘presence’ or entity external to oneself.” The way that we experience spirituality may look different on the outside but is actually very similar on the inside.

Having a sense of oneness with others (even strangers) or with nature and animals is also linked to greater feelings of kindness and compassion. Here again, if we go to the root of most religions and philosophies, you will notice that most of the world’s traditions teach both oneness and compassion.

To the Buddhist monk’s point, understanding brain activity doesn’t make us any deeper or wiser. Bu we desperately need to kindle that sense of belonging and kinship to each other and the planet, and if spirituality or neuroscience are the way, then so be it. S&H

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